Skip to main content

Top 5 Surprise Football Teams of the Last Two Decades

As a lifelong Man Utd supporter, I had a real rollercoaster ride with my feelings about van Gaal. My mind is finally settled about him.

Persepolis FC had a successful 2017-2018 season as they won the Persian Gulf Pro League.

Persepolis FC had a successful 2017-2018 season as they won the Persian Gulf Pro League.

From my own experience as a betting man, I can confidently tell everyone that football is the team sport where an underdog has the best chance to beat a superior opponent. During my university years, I was short on money. One method that I hoped would bring me some cash was sports betting. Football is my favourite sport, so it was an easy option to pick football matches. I soon realised that it was a lot harder than I initially believed it would be, and the chance of a surprise result is way higher than it seems. I later switched to handball matches. Even though I don’t really know the rules of the game, I made a small amount before I quit betting altogether.

I used to bet on individual matches, and to my annoyance, the underdogs often caused an upset. The chance of an underdog punching above their weight over a whole season or an entire tournament is relatively small. However, there are numerous examples of this happening in the past and the present. In this article, I will present a few of these occasions.

New Manchester United interim boss worked miracles at Hoffenheim.

New Manchester United interim boss worked miracles at Hoffenheim.

5. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim 2008/09

Hoffenheim, under the guidance of Ralf Rangnick, was a newly promoted team to the Bundesliga. The club defied all expectations as they led the league standings until round 20. Rangnick is known today as one of the most important German coaches of the last few decades. He is credited with developing Gegenpressing and popularizing zonal marking in Germany.

Rangnick took the Hoffenheim job in for the 2006/07 season. At the time, Hoffenheim was a small team in the German Third Division. Thanks to Rangnick’s innovative tactics, they won promotion to the Second Division for the 2007/08 season, and they instantly won promotion to the Bundesliga for the 2008/09 season.

Once promoted to the top division of German football, Hoffenheim was an absolute revelation during the first half of the season. The newly promoted team played a highly entertaining, very aggressive football, which led to matches with many goals. Hoffenheim dismantled Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund in their 4-1 victory over them. However, Hoffenheim was also capable of running into blunders, like their 5-2 defeat against Bayer Leverkusen. All in all, before the one-month winter break, Hoffenheim was leading the tables. Although their form faded in the second half of the season and they finished 7th, it was still a considerable success for a newly promoted team.

More important than the results was the impact Hoffenheim and Rangnick had over the style of German football. Many coaches started copying and developing on the methods of Rangnick, and for this reason, he is credited with inspiring other German coaches like Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel or Julian Nagelsmann.

A brilliant young team captained by Matthijs de Ligt showed its mettle on numerous occasions during the 2018/19 season.

A brilliant young team captained by Matthijs de Ligt showed its mettle on numerous occasions during the 2018/19 season.

4. Ajax Amsterdam 2018/19

Ajax Amsterdam is one of the iconic teams of European football. They have won numerous European Cups, offered the backbone of the superb Dutch national teams and produced legendary players like Johann Cruyff and Marco van Basten. However, during the last two decades, in the post Bosman rule era, Ajax lost ground to the rich English, Spanish, Italian, German and French teams.

In the early 2010s, the famous Academy of Ajax was restructured. Under the leadership of former players, the club assembled an excellent squad of academy players like Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt. They also had experienced signings like Dusan Tadic.

Peter Bosz took Ajax to the Europa League final in the 2016/17 season. Despite the positive signs, no one could have predicted the achievements of the 2018/19 team. Under manager Erik ten Hag, a very young Ajax side won the Eredivisie, the Dutch Cup and reached the semi-final of the Champions League. What was even more impressive about the success of Ajax was the way they achieved it and against whom. Ajax under ten Hag played a free-flowing attacking football and were scoring goals for fun. They scored 119 goals in just 34 matches, an average of over 3 goals per match.

In the Champions League, Ajax was impressive by regularly coming up against top European teams and matching or even beating them. In the group stages they met Bayern Munich and had two draws. In the last 16 of the competition, they faced Real Madrid. Despite playing superbly, they lost 2-1 in the first leg, only to turn it around and beat their opponent 4-1 in the second leg. In the quarter-finals, they faced a Juventus team fielding Cristiano Ronaldo. After a 1-1 draw in the first leg, Ajax beat Juventus 2-1 in the second leg to qualify for the semi-final.

In the semi-final they faced Mauricio Pochetino’s Tottenham. Ajax won the first leg 1-0 and led Spurs 2-0 in the second. However, in what was one of the greatest comebacks I have ever seen, Spurs turned around the result to win 3-2 and knock Ajax out. Despite the disappointment of not reaching the Final of the Champions League, Ajax was an absolute revelation during the 2018/19 season, and they were rightly proud of their achievements.

Iceland took the lead in the first half and led Hungary 1-0 until the 88th minute.

Iceland took the lead in the first half and led Hungary 1-0 until the 88th minute.

3. Iceland 2016 European Championships

My first two examples came from club football. However, I thought it would be unfair to leave out national team football, There have been many Davids fighting against Goliaths in World Cups, European Championships and other international tournaments.

Iceland is a small country with a population that does not even number half a million, yet this tiny nation gave one of the greatest upsets in the history of the European Championships. Despite being a small nation, Iceland had some excellent players who played in the English, German and Italian first divisions. However, the majority of their players were in the lesser leagues. Despite this, they proved that a team does not need 11 superstars, and they qualified directly to the Euro 2016.

In the group stage, they faced Portugal, Austria and my Hungarian compatriots. In their first match, Iceland surprised the world by holding Portugal to a draw. In the second match against Hungary, they led 1-0 until the 88th minute when Hungary tied with a goal. In the last match, they faced Austria. With two points from the first match, Iceland still had a chance to qualify to the last 16, and they achieved exactly this by defeating Austria 2-1.

Iceland reaching the last 16 was already seen as a huge surprise. However, as they had to face England, most believed that the fairy tale would soon come to an end. The match started badly for the Icelanders as England went 1-0 up thanks to a Wayne Rooney penalty. What followed next, however, shocked nearly everyone. Iceland scored two minutes later and took the lead in the 18th minute of the match, a lead that they held onto until the end. This granted them an entry to the quarter-finals. It was one of the biggest shocks in the history of the European Championships.

Unfortunately, just like in the case of my two previous picks, the fairly tale came to an eventual end. Iceland faced France in the quarter-finals, and the French team full of world-class players easily brushed aside their opponents in a 5-2 victory.

Atletico was the surprise of the 2013/14 season.

Atletico was the surprise of the 2013/14 season.

2. Atletico Madrid 2013/14

Supporters and followers of Spanish football know that the two dominant teams of La Liga are traditionally Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. This was very much the case when Diego Simeone took over Atletico Madrid in December 2011. FC Barcelona under Pep Guardiola and Real Madrid under Jose Mourinho were once again fighting for the league title, and they were leaving everyone else in the dust. Under the leadership of Simeone, Atletico Madrid won the Europa League in 2012 and finished third in the league next season, but they were still a very long way behind the champions Barcelona.

I think it is fair to say that nobody expected Atletico to challenge Real Madrid and Barcelona, yet Los Colchoneros did just exactly that during the season. Simeone’s team was in the running for the title throughout the season, and they took the top position of the table permanently after round 29. Atletico arrived at the last round of the championship leading the title race. They were playing their direct rivals Barcelona in the last round.

Atletico only needed a draw in the Camp Nou to become champions. However, it is easier said than done in front of 96,000 Barcelona fans. Barcelona took the lead after an Alexis Sanchez goal in the 33rd minute, and they went to the halftime break leading. Simeone’s men, however, did not panic, and a goal by centre back Diego Godin tied the match. They were once again in championship-winning position, a position to which they held until the final whistle to win the league title ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

What made Atletico’s season even more impressive was the fact that they went to the very last stages of the Champions League and eliminated some excellent sides en route to the final.

Atletico easily passed the group stages by winning 5 out of their 6 matches. In the last 16, Atletico faced AC Milan and eliminated their Italian opponents by winning home and away and progressing with an aggregate score of 5-1. In the quarter-finals, they faced their league rival Barcelona. In the first match Atletico drew 1-1 in Barcelona, while in the second they won 1-0 after a very convincing performance. In reality, the scoreline could have been way clearer than 1-0.

In the semi-finals, Los Colchoneros faced Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. The first match in Madrid ended in a 0-0 draw, a result that suited Mourinho perfectly. In the second match in London, Chelsea took the lead and were set to qualify for the final. However, Atletico tied just before the break, and they scored two further goals in the second half to complete a superb comeback to reach the final.

In the final, Atletico faced their hometown rivals Real Madrid, whom they edged out for the title. Atletico took the lead in the first half thanks to another goal by Diego Godin, and they looked set to win the Champions League until the 93rd minute when Sergio Ramos tied the match.

The match went into extra time and Real Madrid just had too much quality for Atletico. The man of the match, Angel di Maria, caused havoc in the tiring Atletico defence. Gareth Bale scored in the 110th minute for Real Madrid. His goal was followed by another two. Marcelo made the score 3-1 in the 118th minute while Cristiano Ronaldo scored another in the 120th minute. Los Colchoneros gave their best, and despite ultimately failing to win the Champions League, they had a terrific season.

If there ever was a universally popular champion, Leicester came closest to it.

If there ever was a universally popular champion, Leicester came closest to it.

1. Leicester City 2015/16

If there ever was a fairy tale ending in the world of football since I began watching the game some two decades ago, Leicester’s 2015/16 season was it. Leicester City was a team that was promoted to the Premier League for the 2014/15 season. With eight rounds to go, they were at the bottom of the table and set for relegation. It was not to be, however, as a strong run of results saw Leicester climb up from 20th to 14th to earn another season in the English top division.

Manager Nigel Pearson, who led Leicester’s miraculous end to the 2014/15 season, was sacked and replaced by Claudio Ranieri. Many initially questioned the wisdom of this move. Ranieri was seen as a nice guy and not a winner. However, he had some strong seasons throughout his career, like at Juventus, Roma or Chelsea. Before the season began, Leicester winning the title had the odds of 5,000–1. Most pundits expected Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea to retain their title. Those not betting on Chelsea were backing Man City, Man Utd or Arsenal.

Yet, despite nobody expecting them to be in the title fight, Leicester had an excellent run of results at the beginning of the season. They were constantly in the top four and even occasionally led the standings. Leicester’s striker Jamie Vardy was in red hot form and broke the Premier League record by scoring a goal in 11 consecutive games. Central midfielder N’Golo Kante and winger Riyad Mahrez were also putting in very impressive performances.

As the traditional top teams of English football were tripping over themselves, Leicester was rock solid and collected win after win, point after point. Leicester took the top spot for good after round 22, and despite suffering a defeat at Arsenal, they never again dropped from the top.

With three games to go, Leicester was leading the standings ahead of Tottenham. Leicester had an away trip against Man Utd, while Spurs played at home against Chelsea. Despite Man Utd taking an early lead, Leicester tied the match thanks to a goal by captain Wes Morgan. They held onto a draw at Old Trafford. This was the only time in my life I rooted against Man Utd. This meant that Spurs had to win against Chelsea if they wanted to remain in the title fight. Spurs went 2-0 up in the first half. However, a spirited Chelsea came back and tied. The match ended 2-2 and Leicester became champions.

The 2015/16 season of Leicester is one of the great David beats Goliath stories in football. It was most certainly the biggest surprise I have seen in my two decades of watching the game.

© 2021 Andrew Szekler